See How They Ran
By Lionel Van Deerlin
A 1943 candidate for mayor of San Diego, dairyman Harley Knox, bridled at reports that a rival contender had raised $30,000 to run against him. “If it was worth all that money for someone to make you mayor, I don’t think they were aiming to buy good government,” Knox reasoned. Most San Diegans seemed to agree, electing Knox by a 5-to-2 margin.
Fifty-seven years later, when 30 seconds of local prime-time television can cost $8,000, several candidates for mayor are spending 10 to 20 times the amount that outraged Knox. And the two who survive the March 7 primary will be scooping more cash for the long haul to November.
It is San Diego’s most competitive campaign yet. Never has the city seen so large a field of top-drawer entrants. A well-to-do banker, a county supervisor, three councilmembers, a Superior Court judge—all have the “name I.D.” that office-seekers yearn for. Each stands a realistic chance of making the runoff, possibly with as little as 20 percent of a widely spread primary vote.
Unheard of, this. No contest for mayor has previously involved more than two or three serious candidates—not in all the years since Juan Maria Osuna became this pueblo’s first alcalde, 15 years before statehood. (But no messy election campaign for him—Osuna was a Mexican governor’s appointee.)
The standard against which modern campaigns have been measured occurred in 1917—the celebrated “Smokestacks vs. Geraniums” battle ostensibly deciding whether this city wished to grow or stand still. It was a classic duel: “Geranium George” W. Marston, pioneer merchant-philanthropist, against Louis J. Wilde, a banker-developer who believed that the town should not rely on beauty alone. A Wilde ad asked, “Do You Prefer Progress and Prosperity or Dreams and Daisies?”
In that last local election before women could vote, Marston lost the battle, 12,968 to 9,167, even before there was a Sierra Club. But he may have won the war. San Diego’s skyline remained happily free of smokestacks—and Mayor Wilde chose to depart for Los Angeles soon after his term was up. (So much for that fellow’s judgment!)
The electorate behaved strangely again in 1927. One year after approving $2 million in bonds for water development, they were taken in by a scare campaign against building the much needed Sutherland Dam in East County. A cadre of challengers ousted the City Council majority, electing alarmist Harry C. Clark mayor. Stuck with their own campaign rhetoric, this bunch halted further work on the dam, leaving it to be salvaged a quarter-century later at more than twice the 1927 price tag.
Although all politics may be local, at least one mayoral contest seemed to turn on world events. Early in 1963, few insiders would have bet against Allen Hitch. The feisty little carpet merchant had won his council seat on a single promise: keeping North Park free of parking meters. Though only a nickel an hour then, the meters were widely unpopular. Hitch, their nemesis, entered the primary for mayor a strong favorite.
Alas, parking meters were not enough—he decided to take on the United Nations as well. Hitch demanded that San Diego’s U.N. association be evicted from its little headquarters in Balboa Park. Bad timing, that, only months after President Kennedy’s Cuban missile confrontation had put the United Nations at peak popularity. Hitch sagged in the polls along with Castro’s fortunes, running third on election day.
As elsewhere, the political epiphany of television hit San Diego at mid-century. A longtime councilman with a sound record of service, Gerald C. Crary, aimed to cap his career in 1951 by becoming mayor. Instead, he became local TV’s first political casualty. Middle-aged and unphotogenic, Crary was opposed by a handsome bachelor, ex-Navy pilot John D. Butler. And although the city’s first and only TV station reached fewer than one-fifth of households, those were enough. The untried Butler—at 35 San Diego’s youngest mayor (and the first who was a native son)—won with a bashful smile.
The cost of airtime skyrocketed over the next two decades—but in 1975, a lightly funded candidate, retired publisher Simon Casady, found it possible to cadge free time. The youngest of his five sons, Hollywood producer Cort Casady, devised a spot that accused incumbent Pete Wilson of favoring rich friends in the sale of public lands. Tapes of the half-minute hit were delivered to San Diego’s three network affiliates in advance of a buy order.
Young Casady leaked their contents to the Los Angeles Times, and a prominently displayed story quoted the commercial. An irate Wilson organization warned stations that Casady’s spot libeled the mayor. Lawsuits were threatened. And although there had yet been no time purchased, the dispute prompted stations to show what the fuss was about by running Casady’s commercial repeatedly in regularly scheduled news shows. Without buying time, the challenger reaped thousands of dollars’ worth of free publicity.
Casady enjoyed himself, but Wilson remained mayor.
There has been no serious challenge to an election result here in almost 100 years. But in 1905, opponents pursued legal means to bar the seating of Mayor-elect John L. Sehon (on technical grounds relating to his pension as a retired Army captain).
Avoiding process servers, Sehon hid out until predawn on the day his term was to begin. He then took a tall ladder to the old city hall at Fifth and G, climbing to a second-floor window, which he smashed to gain entry. Would-be challengers arriving later that morning found the new guy already at his desk, firmly in command.
Sehon’s stunt would prove dicier today. The mayor’s office is 11 floors